Remember Paul McCartney’s odd protest song after Ireland’s “Bloody Sunday” in 1972? “Give Ireland back to the Irish,” it went, “make Ireland Irish today.” Now it’s Scotland’s turn.
The Irish got it done with generations of grinding violence and then some tough going at the negotiating table in Belfast. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 made Northern Ireland roughly equidistant from the republic to its south and the kingdom across the Irish Sea—a place unto itself and good enough for now, most Irish say.
If the Scots break away from Britain, they’ll do it in a referendum this Thursday. And they could well end up making Great Britain a little less great. There’s a long history here. Scots haven’t been entirely at ease since 1707, when the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland joined in a “united kingdom.” Never wonder why Scots feel a certain affinity for the French.
The questions at issue this week extend far beyond the splendid Scottish highlands. Viewed broadly, the Scottish referendum is symptomatic of serious problems all over the Western democracies, including the United States.
You see it in Spain as Madrid faces off with the Catalans and across the Continent as the dream of a united Europe meets tinder-box political resistance. In the U.S., you see it in what looks like (but isn’t) widespread indifference to policy-making processes too distant, sequestered, and opaque to grasp. To put a complex matter simply, we are confusing democracy and technocracy and people do not like it.
A referendum on independence in the land of Bobby Burns has been on the cards since the Scottish National Party took a majority in the Scottish parliament three years ago. As the vote approaches, the latest polling, while mixed, suggests a “Yes” is on the way.
It is a close call two ways. First, sentiment among Scots is very mixed. Among them you find everyone from loyalists who support the British crown to fierce nationalists who would be happy to down a dram with any Irish republican. In the middle—a big category—are devolutionists of various stripes, who favor transfers of power from London within the U.K. structure as it is.
Second, dismembering a leading industrial democracy is a close call on principle. Self-determination is an unassailable right. But decentralizing democracy is a reversal of the standard idea of progress in the nation-state era. Strong countries able to assert influence are supposed to be the desired technology.
Until recently, the devolutionist movement, Better Together, was due to carry the day with a “No.” British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strategy has been to feed the pigeons with well-timed offers to devolve this, that, or the other power to Edinburgh.
But polls showing sentiment now in the “Yes” zone have Cameron nearly in tears—yes, literally. As a clever Scot said the other day, the only time English Tories come up here is when they want to hunt grouse. There’s something to it, but the thought of presiding over the loss of Scotland turns Cameron, a true-blue Great Britisher, very blue indeed. What the history books will say, he must be wondering.
Last week everyone in the London establishment turned blue along with him. Labor and Liberal Democrats joined Conservatives to deploy across Scotland to make the case for togetherness. Executives from the big British banks were among those who fanned out with them. Every argument visitors from the south made fortified a persuasive case for the Scots to say “Yes!”—this time with an exclamation point.
Cameron and the Bank of England rested a big part of the argument on the currency question. No currency union, they told Scots, and if you keep using the pound anyway you may run out of money. The big banks warned they would have no choice but to withdraw from independent Scotland in the interest of shareholders and depositors.
This is nothing more than tawdry intimidation—unseemly to the core. The Scots ought to consider turning the argument around: Fine. If this is all you think of us and our aspirations, we’ve been right about the “u” in U.K. for three centuries.
It breaks down this way. Yes, history shows that innumerable technical questions face Scots if they go it alone. But the instrumental argument—the how of it—is all Britain has and it isn’t enough. Scots call the British case negative and they’re right. It’s, “You can’t because and because,” nothing more.
No Scottish voter should confuse means and ends. Self-determination is almost always an end outweighing all questions of means. Who among us would be happy saying, I wish I could define my liberties myself, but customs regulations are complicated and there are the expressways to worry about and what about the postal service and the money and…
A very fine theorist named Partha Chatterjee made the case a few years ago that governments no longer reflect “the politics of the governed,” as he put it in a book of that name. Rather, we live with “governmental technologies,” meaning legitimacy derives not from democratic process but solely from the ability to deliver services “to more people at less cost.”
In a phrase, Chatterjee describes the triumph of the technocrats. No coincidence he is from Calcutta, a city in the world’s largest democracy, and teaches part of each year in New York, a city in the second-largest.
The technocrats’ argument, from London to Brussels to Madrid to Washington, is that means trump ends. They don’t, and never forever when they seem to. Decentralization into smaller sovereignties was not in the modern age’s playbook. This is no reason to reject it out of hand.
I’ll watch the referendum in Scotland this week with Chatterjee’s case against the technocratic state in mind.
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